With British theatres facing wide sweeping funding cuts, closures and the possibility of decreased public interest; Stage explores the importance of theatre and interviews members of each of the University’s prevalent performance societies to find out why theatre means so much to them.
National Theatre subsidy has plummeted by 37% in only the last two years, with local funding too suffering a decrease of 10%. This can have devastating consequences, with the Nottingham Playhouse announcing via Twitter this February:
Whilst campaigns for a new theatre in Rochdale are halted by a requirement for budget cuts of 63 million by 2016. As a whole Britain may be out of recession, but funding for theatre and the arts continue to lag behind in terms of progress.
PantSoc Committee Chair, Vicki Nobel notes the battle which even student performance societies grapple with for support: “Funding is very important… there are a lot of hidden costs in the production of shows beside buying costumes and props; there’s paying for porters, lighting, sound, set design, advertising, rights and storage. The budget for these things is already tight, without funding our productions would suffer, and it’s normally in the costume and props sections, which is a shame because that’s what the audience sees, and what the performers interact with. If we had more money, we could spend more on costumes, advertising and props.”
More money for advertising and drawing attention to Britain’s stages would not hurt. Unfortunately, British drama is not merely under threat from a lack of funding, but also from depleting public interest. The Olivier Awards, recognised across the world as the greatest honour in British theatre, saw their ITV broadcast this year attract an average of only 6% audience share – down from last year’s 10%. Theatre does not seem to be capturing the imagination and attention of the masses.
Luckily, performance has long been a part of British Culture: it has withered dramatic transformation in light of the Industrial Revolution and outlasted being condemned as sinful and shunned from society in the mid 1600s. Olly Brassell, TFTV Theatre Society Committee member tells Vision: “When we think about what makes our country great – it’s our heritage, our history. Theatre is integral to that – it occupies a huge part of our cultural identity. When tourists come to England they come to visit Shakespeare’s birth place and our thriving West End.”
Perhaps the durability of theatre lies in its ability to discuss all manner of issues, to reach many, if they are willing to attend a show and be reached by said messages. Andy Bewley, DramaSoc committee member tells Vision: “Theatre rocks. The study of it, the watching it, the directing of it, the producing of it. All of it. It’s a living, breathing organism that blows through all of life… Despite the stereotypical notion that theatre is predominantly for the middle class and wealthy it truly is accessible and available to us all.”
Olly Brassell too fears the stereotyping of theatre as inaccessible threatening public support for the genre: “Too many people in today’s society have never even been to the theatre or seen a play, which to me is a great tragedy. People assume “that’s not for me”, which considering the diversity in modern theatre, seems naïve.”
Each interviewee was also keen to note not only the importance of performance for the viewers entertained by comedy, pantomime or drama – but how essential these arts are to the performers themselves. Andy Bewley claims: “Anyone can act and anyone can be brilliant at it… It’s also a cracking way to develop as a human being. Being involved and enjoying the art presupposes that you are willing to try and understand and empathise with other human beings. It can build confidence from the shyest foundations; it can give a voice to the most quiet of people and it can take change to the world.” ComedySoc Chair, Lewis Dunn concurs: “Performance is great because it’s a way to let out those extreme ways of ourselves. We know that underneath day-to-day niceties there’s a raw, emotional person being suppressed, and performance lets that out. There’s a reason so many stand-up comedians shout. It’s because if they shout without the microphone they just look mad, but with the microphone we accept it. It’s like putting on a mask that means you’re allowed to express something honestly… If you want me to say why art should get more funding it ultimately comes down to the fact it’s good for people… It’s kind of reassuring to know that sometimes things aren’t about making money.”
You cannot put a price tag on the way in which performance creates an outlet for growth, with organisations such as META (Multicultural Educational Theatre Arts) championing education in the arts as providing “invaluable life-enhancing experiences for young people that are available through no other organization” – highlighting that extra curricular arts, though sidelined to sport, foster the development of empathy and compassion in a way that the latter does not. The importance of the personal growth gained through performance must not be overlooked, but pushed and encouraged.
The experience for theatre-goers can be similarly impactful, in contrast to TV or film, live performance allows more audience interaction – there is a dialogue which exists between performer and viewer not attainable in these other formats. Olly Brassell argues: “theatre asks us to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps; our experience as spectator is active, rather than passive.Yet it is the fact it is live that makes it so exciting. It is a privilege knowing you are one of a few to witness this unique spectacle, this ephemeral art form. Actors perform transitory scenes, that an instant later exist only in the memory of the spectator.”
Ultimately, we allowed Andy Bewley to have the last word on why theatre not only matters, but will endure any funding cuts or temporary dip in public attention: “The lack of arts funding given to theatres around the country is a slight and an accidental compliment. Give a theatre 5 million and they may do something brilliant; give a theatre a fiver and they may do something better. It will always survive. To summarise, theatre is like sex: sometimes disappointing but most of the time alright – and better with an audience.”